Shortly before Dimitar Berbatov scored five against Blackburn Rovers on Saturday a leading media outlet declared that Sir Alex Ferguson had given the Bulgarian striker six months to save his Manchester United career. It’s a claim open to ridicule when a player has scored five but perhaps not that far off the truth either.
After all, Berbatov has rarely found the consistency required of a United player in two and half years at Old Trafford. The burst on Saturday came after a run of 10 matches without a goal and some frustratingly brittle performances to boot.
Failure of consistency is an accusation that is levelled against both Berbatov’s output and his performances for the club. So brilliant he is often worth the Glazers’ inflated ticket prices one week. So frustratingly wasteful that neither manager nor fans can trust him the next.
In statistics supporters often find salvation. In 103 appearances for the club, the Bulgarian’s bare output is no embarrassment; 38 goals and 18 assists point to both a creator and finisher. Much as Ferguson had predicted when signing the player for more than £30 million in August 2008.
Indeed, as Berbatov scored seven goals in the opening six fixtures this season many observers ate their most critical words. Berbatov finally married consistent goalscoring to his undoubted artistry. Ten games, no goals and an overwhelming sense of frustration later and Berbatov’s opening six weeks seemed an exception to prove a rule.
The 29-year-old striker’s tendency to disappear from games when he is not in prime form came to fore once again in the past two months, just as it had last season. Just 12 goals last term led to Ferguson regularly leaving out his record signing. The Scot did the same last weekend, ignominiously leaving Berbatov out of his matchday 18 against Wigan Athletic.
It leaves supporters wondering whether Berbatov can ever find the consistency expected of a £30 million player. Indeed, Berbatov expressed relief after the performance against Blackburn, with five goals signaling the end of a ‘worrying’ period for the Bulgarian star.
“In the end I’m pleased with the performance and the goals I scored, personally I was very impressed with myself,” said Berbatov.
“I’ve scored five before but it was a long time ago back home. To do it in the Premier League when only four other players have done it, to stand next to Shearer and Andy Cole is a great honour.”
“I was a little bit worried. When you are a striker people tend to only look at the goals you score.”
But if goals are the currency, then Berbatov comes up short at the highest level. In matches against other members of the traditional ‘big four’ the Bulgarian has scored just five in 14 games for United. Three of those came against Liverpool this season. The record is little better against other contenders. He has two in seven matches against former club Tottenham Hotspur and none in five games against Manchester City.
In the Champions League the striker has just four in 18 games, these coming against the lesser lights of Aalboug and Celtic. For a creative player, Berbatov is credited with just one assist in those 18 fixtures.
None of which, of course, makes for comfortable reading for the striker, who on that evidence is little more than a flat-track bully, despite topping this season’s Premier League scoring charts with 11.
Sam Allardyce, whose team suffered at Berbatov’s feet on Saturday, moved to defend the 29-year-old striker against his many critics.
“Dimitar has a laid-back style,” Allardyce said.
“You have to understand the intelligence of Berbatov, how he finds spaces in tight areas, how rarely his touch deserts him, how he looks slow but is actually far quicker.
“It takes time to settle in and play for Manchester United. Just because you cost £30 million it doesn’t mean you are going to be an instant success, you still have to get used to playing for Manchester United and the pressure of playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world.”
That Allardyce should feel the need to speak out on Berbatov’s behalf speaks loudly. Indeed, eight of the striker’s goals this season have come in two games, which is a pointer to the overwhelming frustration with a player whose outstanding ability should bring so much more consistency.
There should be no debate; technically, Berbatov has few limits. His talent deserves all the personal and team accolades possible.
Mentally though, questions remain. Will the Bulgarian follow Saturday’s quintet with goals in the coming weeks, including matches against Chelsea and Arsenal in December? History suggests it unlikely and with Rooney now fit, there’s no guarantee Ferguson will even select the Bulgarian for United’s biggest games.
That is Berbatov’s legacy and it is so much less than it could be. There is time though, with the player contracted to United until June 2012 and talks over a new contract still possible before next summer.
Berbatov’s talent could yet bring a 25 goal season though. Supporters, team and most of all Berbatov himself deserve that level of consistency.